AAUP Leaders See Opportunity in Tough Times

June 13, 2010

The current economic crisis is prompting many colleges to trample over the rights of their employees—and that might actually be a good thing for the health and strength of the American Association of University Professors, leaders of the organization told members gathered here on Saturday.

"We are looking at dark times, and they are not going to end rapidly," Cary Nelson, the group's president, said in opening the business portion of the group's 96th annual meeting.

Of the approximately 350 people who had registered to present papers at the conference, about 100 had backed out because their institutions had withdrawn funds for them to travel here, according to Mr. Nelson. And mass firings of faculty members and other workers, he said, "have suddenly become a characteristic feature of higher education."

But, Mr. Nelson said, the threats to shared governance, academic freedom, and job security being posed by colleges' cost-cutting represent "an opportunity for us" as an organization. He said the group has more efforts under way to organize collective-bargaining units on campuses than at any time in the past 20 years, and he is optimistic about its efforts to recruit new members.

Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the AAUP, said the group also plans to become more active in seeking to protect the rights of adjunct faculty and nonfaculty professional employees on college campuses.

To make membership more affordable for young or adjunct faculty members, those on hand for Saturday's meeting voted unanimously to have their organization adopt a policy of charging its "advocacy members"—those not in collective-bargaining units—dues tied to their income.

In other business, the members here unanimously voted to sanction Antioch University for alleged violations of shared governance, and to place Clark Atlanta University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston on its censure list for academic-freedom violations. (See a related article.)

On the Rebound

Much of Saturday's meeting was devoted to discussing how the AAUP continues to recover from the organizational and financial troubles it was experiencing up to a few years ago, which had left it with declining membership and a $250,000 budget deficit.

Howard Bunsis, the group's secretary-treasurer, reported that, in terms of operating income, the AAUP was in the black by more than $97,000 for the 2009-10 fiscal year and appears to be on track to run a surplus in the current fiscal year as well, a marked turnaround. He credited various cost-saving measures, such as a $450,000 cut in what it was paying to outside service providers, such as accountants, and an increase in revenue. Going forward, he said, the group plans to put assets into safer investments, not involving equities, to help ensure that it stays on track financially.

The new dues policy that the group adopted Saturday represents a reversion to the type of income-based system it had used in the past, before moving to a system that had different rates based mainly on employment status. Whereas full-time faculty members not covered by collective bargaining have been paying $172 annually, under the new system their dues will range from $45, for those earning salaries of less than $30,000 annually, to $225 for those annually earning $120,000 or more.

In arguing for the new dues structure, Mr. Nelson said that about 80 percent of the faculty members teaching in college classrooms earn less than $60,000 annually. Meanwhile, only about a third of current AAUP members earn less than $60,000, a recent survey conducted by the organization found.

The resolution calling for the new dues structure said "some faculty members struggle to pay for AAUP dues given economic realities."

Mr. Nelson argued that the new structure would help the group organize faculty members who do not belong to collective-bargaining units and recruit members in academic departments where salaries are low, sending them the message, "You can do it. You can take power in your own hands."

As part of its efforts to expand its membership and influence, the AAUP is also involved in organizing collective-bargaining units at Bowling Green State University, New Mexico State University, Sinclair Community College in Ohio, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Oregon.

In addition, the group has undertaken high-profile campaigns to shore up shared governance and academic freedom at colleges in light of pressure on colleges to slash their work forces and several recent federal-court decisions seen as leaving professors at public colleges at greater risk of being disciplined for statements made in connection with their jobs.

David M. Rabban, the chairman of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, reported that in the last year, new protections for faculty speech have been included in college policies or collective-bargaining agreements at the University of Delaware, University of Florida, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin. A panel of that committee is preparing a statement on how colleges can protect academic freedom in making personnel decisions involving politically controversial professors.

Larry Gerber, the chairman of the association's Committee on College and University Governance, said the association plans to hold a special conference on shared governance in Washington in November.